A House Built on Sand

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Commentators have suggested many reasons for Fiji's recent coup and its seemingly sudden retreat from multiracial democracy. Some blame the legacy of the colonial era, when divided populations were deemed easier to rule. Others argue that the nation's troubles are the inevitable result of interracial friction. Still others point out that unbalanced development strategies have produced a poorly educated urban underclass ripe for mobilization by malcontents like George Speight.

All these factors have certainly contributed to the current crisis. But to understand why Speight's group has been so successful, one need look no further than Fiji's main ruling institutions: the Presidency, the Great Council of Chiefs, and above all, the military. These institutions were the chief beneficiaries of the coups that Sitiveni Rabuka staged in 1987 in the name of indigenous Fijian rights. Having acquiesced in his flouting of the constitution, and profited from his brand of ethnic nationalism, they now find themselves unable to resist Speight.

The latest coup initially lacked the establishment support Rabuka enjoyed in 1987. It also lacked the full backing of the military. What gave it legitimacy was Speight's claim that, like Rabuka, he was representing indigenous Fijians. Against this the President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, could do nothing. He might disapprove of Speight's action and the lawlessness it triggered, but he himself had always stood for the primacy of indigenous Fijian interests. Shocked at losing the Prime Ministership at the 1987 election, he readily supported Rabuka's coup one month later-and was rewarded, ruling as Fiji's unelected Prime Minister for four years and later becoming President.

Mara quickly acceded to Speight's first demands, dismissing the democratically elected government of Mahendra Chaudhry, an Indo-Fijian, and reasserting the principle of ethnic Fijian primacy. His readiness to negotiate with Speight's group gave them further legitimacy, and sent powerful signals to political fence-sitters who were waiting to see what would happen. What Mara could not have expected was that he himself would be the rebels' next target. "The Mara dynasty must end," Speight declared early in the coup; soon afterward, it did.

When armed forces chief Frank Bainimarama, fearing "a potentially catastrophic political situation," assumed the Presidency, he abandoned any pretense of constitutionality, immediately abrogating the multiracial 1997 constitution. This, and his sidelining of Mara, pleased the coup makers. But in taking power the armed forces also became an obstacle in the rebels' path-and thus provided their next target.

The military too is compromised. As an almost exclusively indigenous institution, it is unable to represent the nation in times of political crisis. The military's support of the 1987 coups served it well: its numbers have since nearly doubled, and during the 1990s Rabuka turned a blind eye to its annual budget overruns. Military leaders openly sympathized with the Speight group's ethnic-nationalist aims (though not their means). Many of the men behind Speight were well-armed soldiers-who will now be accepted back into the military.

In agreeing to negotiate with Speight, the military only helped the rebels by giving them breathing space. Even its efforts to establish an interim civilian government were doomed. The all-indigenous line-up conformed to Speight's agenda but satisfied no one, least of all the rebels, who argued that the military's nominees were mostly has-beens who had failed Fijians in the past. With the signing of the Muanikau Accord, the military capitulated fully to the coup makers.

The only other institution that might have foiled Speight's ambitions was the Great Council of Chiefs, which happens to be chaired by Rabuka. An all-indigenous body, it sided with Rabuka in 1987 and was rewarded with the right to choose the country's President. The council's main investment company, Fijian Holdings-and its senior officers, who have access to shares-profited greatly from Rabuka's affirmative-action policies. While the value of Fijian Holdings' assets grew fourfold during the 1990s, little profit trickled down to ordinary Fijians. By threatening to stir the grumblings of commoners, Speight gained extra leverage against the chiefs. Early in the coup, the rebels indicated that they had no time for former politicians who had accepted the 1997 constitution. Later, a campaign of lawlessness across Fiji made the same point to Fiji's chiefs: commoners would take over if necessary.

Fiji's key institutions once leaned on ethnic nationalism. Now it is their Achilles' heel. Seduced by Speight's ethnic-nationalist rhetoric, they also fell victim to it. For the coup's real target was not Indo-Fijians but the Establishment itself.

Robbie Robertson, a historian at LaTrobe University, Victoria, is the author of Multiculturalism and Reconciliation in an

Indulgent Republic: Fiji after the Coups: 1987-1998(COULD YOU INSERT TITLE OF A FIJI BOOK HERE